Who Says Syria’s Calling? Muslims in Central Asia

David W. Montgomery, Visiting Assistant Professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Anthropology Department, wrote an article with John Heathershaw titled “Who Says Syria’s Calling? Why It is Sometimes Better to Admit That We Just Do Not Know.” Here’s an excerpt:

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report on the radicalization of Muslims in Central Asia, Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia (20 Jan 2015), focuses specifically on the recruitment of Central Asians to Islamic State (IS) and the consequences of this phenomenon for the region’s security. This short report repeats the ungrounded assumptions of earlier reports, as identified in a Chatham House paper we published in November 2014. It argues that recruitment is higher than previously thought, that attraction to violent extremism is found in the ”devout” who demand a greater public role for religion, and that the return of such people “risk[s] challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia” (p. 1).

The report’s assumed relationship between Islamization and radicalization, and the claim that both are ideological processes spurred by economic disadvantage, makes all pious Muslims potential followers of IS. However, as we have argued, there is no evidence for this claim in Central Asia. Furthermore, the very concept of radicalization is incoherent and disputed. Even in the UK or US, where the environment is more conducive to research, there is disagreement as to who are most susceptible to radicalization: rich or poor, recent immigrants or native-born citizens, the well educated or the ill informed, political entrepreneurs or those with mental health problems. In short, we know almost nothing about the causes of “radicalization,” despite the many millions of dollars that have been poured into research projects on the subject.

Syria Calling therefore appeals to received wisdom, not evidence and logic, to make its argument that IS’s purported success in the region is a consequence of the general ills of society. Given that ICG’s work is some of the best of its genre, based on fieldwork by experts working in the region, this is a strong assertion, and we do not make it lightly.

You can read the whole article here.

Guide to the ASEEES-Stephen Cohen Controversy



Many are following the controversy over the Stephen F. Cohen-Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowship Program. For those unfamiliar with the details or want to follow the responses, here’s a useful guide.

From Stephen Cohen:

Then the controversy went public in the New York Times: Scholars at Odds on Ukraine.

Responses from ASEEES:

The debate and responses:


Podcast: Taras Kuzio, Euromaidan, Crimea and War with Russia

Is Ukraine’s Weakness Its Greatest Strength?

University of Pittsburgh Economics Professor Tymofiy Mylovanov has an article with Samuel Charap, “For Ukraine, Weakness Could Be Its Greatest Strength,” in the National Interest. Here’s an excerpt:

The United States and the EU have demonstrated significant commitment to Ukraine’s success since the Maidan revolution. However, no Western leader has ever suggested that Ukraine has a blank check—that the Western commitment is without limits. Instead, as evidenced by the measured extent of financial and military assistance to Ukraine, this commitment is both limited and conditional. In particular, if Kyiv’s promises to implement meaningful reforms are not fulfilled soon, then Western support might evaporate.

Russia has also demonstrated significant commitment to achieving its objectives in Ukraine. The Kremlin has shown willingness to incur significant costs—international sanctions, political isolation and economic and human losses from the military conflict—since the crisis broke out a year ago. Thus, in contrast to the West, Russia’s actions demonstrate that its commitment in this conflict is essentially unconditional and unlimited.

Thankfully, Ukraine’s circumstances have not deteriorated to the point of the U.S. big banks in 2008, when the federal bailout demonstrated that they were in fact too big to fail. But the threat of a dramatic deterioration in Ukraine’s security or economic conditions looms large in 2015. Policy makers in Kyiv certainly need to prepare for the worst. After a year of nearly every Western leader proclaiming firm commitments to Ukraine, some of those policy makers might well believe that they can still take certain risks; after all, they might reassure themselves, the West will never allow Ukraine to fail. While we cannot say with certainly that such a reassurance is baseless, there is strong evidence to suggest precisely that.

Take, for example, Washington’s recent passage of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which observers in both Kyiv and the West have characterized as a major step forward in the U.S. commitment to the security and prosperity of Ukraine. But the way it changed as it evolved from bill to law runs counter to this narrative.

In the initial draft that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ukraine was classified a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA). The term has a largely technical meaning that relates to arms export procedures and security cooperation; it is not the same as a mutual defense treaty. But both in Ukraine and beyond, many, including President Petro Poroshenko, seemed to believe that MNNA implies just that. For Washington, regardless of the technical meaning of the term, granting MNNA status to Ukraine would have represented a much firmer commitment to Ukraine’s security, since violations of it would have undermined the credibility of all U.S. alliances.

But, in the end, the MNNA provision was removed from the final version of the bill. Further, essentially all other measures in the legislation—including both military assistance and sanctions on Russia—grant authorities to the executive branch, but do not compel it to act.

In short, the new law does demonstrate U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s security, but its transformation shows the profound limits of that commitment. It should be a cautionary tale to President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian elite as a whole. They can rely on the United States for support, but the United States will not guarantee Ukraine’s security. In the short term, that means Kyiv will be largely on its own if Moscow decides to break the tenuous ceasefire and push deeper into Ukrainian territory.

Some argue that if the security situation deteriorates dramatically, the United States and its allies will be compelled to intervene, because they could not countenance the permanent dismemberment or occupation of a European state. In fact, they did just that in the case of Cyprus. Since its 1974 invasion of the island, Turkey has illegally occupied the sovereign state of the Republic of Cyprus. Following the north’s 1983 declaration of independence as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), Turkey recognized it, and it remains the only state to have done so. To this day, Turkey maintains between 30,000 and 40,000 troops on the one-third of the island controlled by the TRNC despite numerous UN Security Council resolutions since its initial invasion calling for immediate withdrawal.

The UK, as a guarantor of the treaty granting Cyprus its independence, had a legal obligation to “undertake to prohibit . . .any activity aimed at promoting . . . partition of the Island.” Despite the presence of UK servicemen at its two bases on the island, London did not act militarily to stop Turkey’s invasion. The United States had no treaty obligation, but beyond the UNSC, its response was restrained: a three-year embargo on U.S. military grants and arms sales to Turkey was the most severe measure adopted.

You can read the whole article here.


Myth of Muslim Radicalization in Central Asia

Житель Таджикистана

David W. Montgomery, Visiting Assistant Professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Anthropology Department, wrote an article with John Heathershaw titled “The ‘Muslim radicalisation of Central Asia’ is a dangerous myth” in Open Democracy. Here’s an excerpt:

In the security think-tanks and expert communities of the Western world, it is received wisdom that Central Asia has been, and remains, on the brink of an explosion of religiously-motivated violent extremism. Such an eruption, it is assumed, would place Central Asia alongside Afghanistan and some parts of the Middle East and South Asia that have suffered instability and violence commonly attributed to the inherent turbulence of Muslim politics since the middle of the 20th century.

The argument, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, is that there is something inherent in Islam that leads to radicalisation and violence. Seeing the danger in ‘Muslim politics’ rather than simply ‘politics’ exacerbates a fear that Central Asia could turn to the norm of the Islamic world, i.e. violent instability. Notwithstanding the underlying Islamophobia in some of these expert accounts of instability and danger, they should not be easily dismissed, for two reasons.

Firstly, Central Asia is a region of authoritarian kleptocracies run largely by Soviet-era leaders, some of which have suffered political instability. Their vulnerability to a moral, religion-based critique rooted in Islam is considerable. And their often-clumsy attempts to control religion are only inconsistently effective and are sometimes counter-productive.

Read the full article here.

Timofiy Mylovanov Talks Ukraine on Essential Pittsburgh

University of Pittsburgh economics professor Timofiy Mylovanov was interviewed on Essential Pittsburgh on the state of Ukraine. Here’s a description of the interview from WESA‘s website:

Mylovanov acknowledges that the political and judicial corruption for which Ukraine has been notorious remains an issue for the country, but he says the corruption may be a symptom rather than a cause. He says that the Ukrainian economy and political system definitely suffer from a lack of transparency, but because that lack of transparency ends up benefiting parties with vested interests, it’s difficult to overcome.

Mylovanov explains that he is part of an informal group of economists, scholars and critics that publishes articles covering Ukrainian political issues at voxukraine.org. Occasionally the work published at Vox Ukraine has been influential to Ukrainian policymakers, who have adopted some of the scholars’ recommendations.

You can hear the interview below:

Oil Price Taking a Toll on Russia

RussiaOilPriceChart-2300Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post reports that the drop in the price of oil is having more effect on the Russian economy than Western sanctions:

Nine months into the worst relations between the West and Russia since the Cold War, the plunging price of oil is causing deeper and swifter pain than the Western sanctions that have targeted key areas of Russia’s economy. Russian leaders said Tuesday for the first time that their economy will head into recession next year. In a nation where oil and gas exports largely determine the bottom line, lawmakers are slashing spending promises. And the ruble is hitting historic lows every day.

The sanctions haven’t moved Moscow much. There has been no inclining that Russian will return Crimea. In fact the extension of Russian control over the peninsula marches on. Nor have they stopped Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. If reports from the Ukrainian government and NATO are to be believed, Moscow’s been sending a steady stream of weapons and armor over the border in recent weeks.

But the fall in oil prices, Birnbaum argues, “appears to be changing policy calculations far more quickly.” What exactly those changing policy calculations are, Birnbaum doesn’t say. Nevertheless, the Finance Ministry now admits that Russia is on the brink of recession. Indeed, last week Finance Minister Anton Siluanov predicted that the loss of oil revenue will cost Russia $90 billion to $100 billion. The sanctions on the contrary will cost $40 billion. Granted, this number doesn’t include the projected $130 billion in sanctions instigated capital flight.

But this doesn’t mean Russia is on the brink of economic disaster as some suggest. Experts give Russia a year to two years of breathing room.

Some aspects of Russia’s finances still stand it in good stead. The state’s debts are low. Its international reserves were $429 billion at the end of October, down by a fifth since last year’s peak but still enough to hold off major economic calamity for about two years, analysts said. And the ruble’s slide has helped cushion the blow to state coffers, since oil transactions are in dollars: A barrel of oil at $71 on Tuesday actually bought more rubles than it did in July, when oil was $110.

Still the drop in the price of oil, which is currently at $70 (the Russian budget is set at $100 a barrel) is having quite an impact on the Russian economy, as the chart comparing the price of oil with the collapse of the ruble indicates. Russia is looking at tough economic waters ahead, especially as experts predict the low price of oil will continue well into 2015.

Conference Report: “No Radical Art Actions Are Going to Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism”

By Jonathan Platt

From September 18-21, 2014, the international conference, “No Radical Art Actions Are Going to Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism” was held in St. Petersburg, Russia as part of the Manifesta 10 Contemporary Art Biennial’s Public Program, curated by Joanna Warsza.  I organized the conference in collaboration with Marijeta Bozovic (Yale University) and Artemy Magun (St. Petersburg State University, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences). Along with support from Manifesta and Magun’s Critique of the Social Sciences Seminar, the conference was also generously supported by a REES small grant.

Manifesta’s choice of holding the biennial in St. Petersburg sparked great controversy, first because of the city’s anti-gay law and then because of the annexation of Crimea. A number of local and foreign artists decided to boycott the events, including the influential Chto Delat collective.  However, local artists felt that it was appropriate to participate in the public program, the goal of which was to engage the city directly with site-specific installations and performances, a series of apartment exhibitions, curated by Olesya Turkina and Roman Osminkin, and public events like my conference.

The atmosphere is understandably pessimistic for politically engaged artists and theorists in Russia today.  However, the conference proved a great success, as we managed to bring together many of the most important figures in the scene for four days of fruitful discussions about art’s connection to political violence and the capacities for a militant aesthetics today.  There was an incredible warmth to the proceedings, as participants and audience members alike sensed the importance of this loose collective of leftist intellectuals at a time when few seem inclined to listen to sophisticated statements about emancipation, struggle, and the enduring power of engaged art.  The presence of a few high-profile foreign guests and several active audience members, in town from abroad for the biennial, also contributed an essential openness to outside viewpoints.

The first evening of the conference was devoted to a roundtable discussion of the central issues of our gathering and a screening and discussion of Chto Delat’s new film, “The Excluded: In a Moment of Danger,” premiering in Russia. The second day was devoted to scholarly interventions.  A panel on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Critique of Violence,” investigated the philosophical meaning of war and law, and aesthetic means of overcoming violence. The second panel turned more to more properly aesthetic concerns, discussing the place of trauma in Russian Formalist criticism, the place of negativity in aesthetic philosophy since Kant, and Mikhail Lifshits’s theory of humane resignation as an alternative to avant-garde aesthetics. Finally, the third panel turned specifically to the question of artistic forms of political activism.

The third day was devoted to presentations of poetry and original artworks produced for the conference.  We began with readings by Kirill Medvedev, Galina Rymbu, Elena Kostyleva, Keti Chukhrov, and Aleksandr Skidan, followed by a lively discussion of the place of violence in recent Russian poetry.  Roman Osminkin and the Gandhi street art collective presented a video performance, and Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskay (Gluklya) screened her work in progress, examining the militant sacrifice of Soviet partisan, Zoya Kosmodemianskaya. Finally, philosopher Oxana Timofeeva and artist Nikolai Oleynikov delivered a poetic-theoretical dialogue on the theme of making love during wartime.  That evening the group convened for raucous dancing at the Griboedov Club, treated to a concert by Arkady Kots, supported by It’s Too Early to Shave Your Armpits and two anarchist singer-songwriters.

On the final day of the conference, the group traveled by bus to the Razliv Museum, where Lenin hid out before returning to St. Petersburg in October 1917, to view a new exhibit and attend a lecture on the place of the revolutionary museum today.

The full schedule of the conference can be found on the Manifesta website.

Video documentation is also available at the Manifesta 10 YouTube channel.


Lecture: Andrew Behrendt, Colorblind Cats and Local Nationalists: Tourism and Two Kinds of Homeland in Austria and Hungary, 1930-1938

Hungarian tourism promoters in the 1930s gnashed their teeth in frustration at a sluggish domestic travel market. In their minds, Hungarians were disloyal and ungrateful tourists, ignorant of their country and therefore unwilling to spend their vacations “at home” rather than abroad. The solution, these promoters decided, was to appeal to Hungarians’ sense of patriotism and guilt them into traveling. But in neighboring Austria, another post-imperial country with its own struggles to stimulate tourism, such arguments were nowhere to be found. Austrians, it seems, did not need to be goaded into “seeing Austria first.” What explains this disparity? In part, it has to do with two different visions of “homeland,” one which defined the nation as an expression of local identity (and vice versa), and another that saw the state belonging to a single, fixed nation awaiting “discovery.” This talk, adapted from a chapter of Mr. Behrendt’s dissertation-in-progress, proposes that a comparison of these cases helps us to a better understanding of how societies adapting to the end of empire have (re-)imagined the idea of “home” as the national and regional boundaries changed around them.